In push to mine for minerals, clean energy advocates ask what going green really means

By Shannon Kelleher

A traveler crossing the expanse of northern Nevada desert known as Thacker Pass might see a wasteland – nothing but scrubby sagebrush out to the rim of the caldera, where the mountains cut the horizon.

But for local tribal members, the land they call Peehee Mu’huh, or “Rotten Moon,” is a hallowed place of remembrance and sacred burial site. In 1865, US cavalrymen massacred their ancestors at the site, including children and elders. Members of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe visit often, praying and sharing food together in the windswept wilderness.

Now, a contingent of forces that includes the US government and a large Canada-based mining corporation are pushing to make Thacker Pass a gateway to the future– they seek to carve into the landscape, extracting massive quantities of lithium for use in batteries that could power one million electric vehicles (EVs) per year. The mineral deposit at Thacker Pass is considered the largest known lithium source in North America, making it an important resource for “clean energy” technology that mitigates harmful climate change by curbing fossil fuel dependence.

Staunch opposition has formed around the project from local tribes as well as environmental advocates who argue the mining operation would threaten vulnerable wildlife and dangerously pollute the air and water just as similar mining project have in the past. But earlier this month a US District Court judge largely upheld the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM)’s 2020 decision to approve the mine.

Though opponents vow to keep fighting, the court ruling allows Canada-based Lithium Americas to advance construction plans for the $2.2 billion project, and General Motors Co. (GM) recently announced plans to invest $650 million in the mine.

The Biden administration last year announced a series of incentives aimed at boosting supplies of lithium as well as other minerals such as nickel and cobalt, deemed “critical” for use in electric vehicle production and other renewable energy needs, saying increasing supplies will help “improve America’s energy independence, strengthen national security, support good-paying jobs…”

But the battle over Thacker Pass illustrates just how complicated the issue is as environmental advocates find themselves presented with these thorny questions: What does “going green” really mean? What is the true cost of the clean energy revolution? And will vulnerable communities inevitably pay that price?

“This story is the same everywhere,” said Ian Lange, a professor of economics at the Colorado School of Mines. “If you don’t want to mine for minerals, we’re going to keep drilling for oil and gas.”